My internship at SZOIL dominated my stay in China. The shifts were Monday to Friday, from 9:30 to 17:30, with some voluntary extra time and a couple of weekend activities. I had very nice colleagues, not just my fellow CRCC interns, but the whole team working at SZOIL, from the regular Chinese staff members, to three other student interns from China, Nepal and Sri Lanka. While each of us worked on our own projects, we often lent a hand to each other, or had a break from one and did something different for a while (which is how I ended doing the variety of tasks mentioned below). Moreover, one of SZOIL’s regular workers, whom supervised my work for the GHL, taught us how to use some of the machines in the lab. I only used the laser engraver and cutter, as 3D printing required designing and that’s something I’m awful at.
Normally, we ordered takeaway through an app and ate lunch together in the office side of the lab. Sometimes, some colleagues went to a restaurant in a nearby building, while I normally stayed in, mainly if I had brought food from home (as I did sometimes). Lunch time was a nice moment of the day, not just because we could all relax for a short period of time and even take naps (I’m not a naps person, I don’t like to sleep in public, so I didn’t), but because it was a good period to catch up and chat about things other than work (possible because our SZOIL coworkers and the rest of interns spoke English, which was the de facto language in the office).
Without doubt, there were various funny moments, and luckily, I never felt excluded from the social environment in the lab. A particularly nice memory was when the American CRCC intern and I stayed working till late, and our supervisor invited us, and other regular SZOIL colleagues, for dinner in a nearby mall. I really enjoyed that evening, not just because of the free food, but also because of the company. Besides, I got to see Shenzhen at night, which looks even more beautiful.
Aside from working in the lab, my coworkers and I did other activities together. For example, we went to Xingguang (from the Open Village project) on a Saturday for their Lychee Festival, one of the village’s initiatives to promote both cultural and economic empowerment in the rural community. It was a wonderful experience. Though I couldn’t understand most of the panel discussion aspect of the festival because it was majorly in Chinese, I did learn something that I have always overlooked: the importance of private-public & cross-sector partnerships for sustainable development. In addition, we got invited for lunch, during which we networked with other attendees, and got gifted boxes full of lychees!
Another outside-lab event we attended as SZOIL workers was a business seminar hosted by CRCC Asia (the intern company), during which our boss and another businessman talked about Shenzhen, enterprise and similar topics. Some of my boss’s words from that evening really stuck with me, mainly his belief that entrepreneurship is not simply about fancy buildings and suits, or glamourous working spaces. According to him, entrepreneurship is about the people in the streets, walking around tech markets, and doing the ground work: those are the 96% in the entrepreneurial world. I fully agreed with him, realising how important enterprise is for development.
My boss (co-founder of the lab), just as my supervisors, was a great person to work for. He wasn’t overly strict, but he, as the rest of SZOIL’s workers, was task-oriented. He encouraged contributions from us for a variety of projects, often he invited us to outside-work events (which I missed because I was either ill or had to study), and he gave us decent feedback on our work. He wasn’t always in the lab, but when he was, he shared his working space with us. He didn’t dress overly formerly and spoke to us as equals. I liked that a lot because it made me feel more respected. If he wasn’t in the lab, he communicated with us via our WeChat work group.
It is worth to mention that WeChat was the key messaging and document-sharing platform in the lab, even if most of the workers there sat down next to each other. It might sound bizarre and asocial, but , it helped to create a more silent and peaceful working environment. Less chaotic and still efficient. I was fond of WeChat, which turned out to be more than simply China’s Whatsapp. It has Snapchat and Facebook features as well, and it is used as a professional networking app like LinkedIn too.
When comes to my everyday workload, I did an array of tasks. Normally, I focused on my work for the GHL, as it was more important that the Open Village because we had to put together a presentation and ideas for an upcoming workshop, which my GHL supervisor was going to attend. One the one hand, I had to do desktop-research and create a PowerPoint for my supervisor’s presentation, explaining how a machine he had selected (with his technological expertise) would be useful in a humanitarian context (requiring my development knowledge), both through what it produced and the process to produce it.
On the other hand, I had to brainstorm and write down ideas on how potentially marginalised groups could access and make use of that machine and other tools (all part of a FabKit). I mainly applied some anthropological knowledge, reflecting on issues of power, inequality and participation. Tying it to M&E activities, I stressed the need for participatory and qualitive research, giving some guidance and ideas. I also had to think about more technical issues (e.g. improving accessibility), while taking into account material and location constraints.
As progress on the GHL project depended on my supervisor and our contacts in the GHL, I sometimes found myself with nothing to do for the project (waiting for feedback on previous work before proceeding), so I was assigned other tasks. As said, there wasn’t much to do for the Open Village, except administrative bits here and there, so I got involved in other projects, such as the Productive City (urban development and innovation). I helped one of my CRCC co-workers working in it, as he had to write a comprehensive workshop proposal by a set day and time.
I offered some suggestions on structure and activities, gave information on how to carry out tasks such as community mapping, and proposed the inclusion of questionnaires (quantitative and qualitative) to evaluate the effectiveness of the workshop and create statistics to promote future SZOIL activities. As the later was greenlighted, apart from designing the questionnaire, I had to create a spreadsheet and a guidance sheet to facilitate its analysis. I felt very proud of this task, because it was my own idea and it was very welcomed, even by my boss and our partners in the project. I even created templates for future activities, as SZOIL didn’t seem to have any.
I think that I probably worked more on the Productive City project than on the Open Village project, but it was worth it. I’m a flexible person and I adapt to situations: where help is needed, I will give it if I am available. And even after helping with the three projects mentioned, I still did other unrelated tasks, such as designing two websites on WordPress, assisting with meetings in/visits to the lab, writing applications for different events, helping with conference paper write-ups…. While the internship was short, my professional experience expanded significantly. But perhaps, the thing I gained most wasn’t that or knowledge about the technological world: it was confidence. The confidence to suggest, design and manage my own ideas. This is something I have always lacked. Not because I have a fear of failure as a concept, but because I don’t like the embarrassment and repercussions that might come from it.
I’m a creative and an independent person, I would like to set-up and run my own project or organisation one day. For that, I need to be more fearless, believe more in the possibility of success on my own. Helping others (as an assistant) and being a follower isn’t a bad thing, but limiting myself to that when I aim for much more is frustrating at times. However, working at SZOIL boosted my confidence greatly, as I could propose and do my own initiatives. I received positive feedback often and that made feel less nervous the next time I wanted to suggest something. This might sound silly, but decision-making and leadership really used to make me feel uneasy and even anxious. After working in SZOIL, not so much. I have realised that I can lead others and I can manage projects successfully.
As all the good things in life, my internship came to an end at some point, after three weeks and a half of work, which actually felt months. I still remember going to work the last day, with my supervisor being sad and gifting me bubble tea. Eating delicious Chinese breakfast and lunch for the last time. I remember the hugs and the goodbyes, the pictures with my lovely co-workers from around the globe. The rain as I left SZOIL’s building and commuted on the bus for the last time. Checking out of Apartment One, packing and getting my certificate of internship completion. I remember going to sleep, waking up early, and heading alone to a public station to take a minivan to Hong Kong airport. Crossing immigration checks and looking at the beautiful landscape while on the vehicle. Arriving to the airport, checking in and meeting the rest of Sussex students, who arrived there in diverse ways.
When I finally got on the plane, I reflected on the whole experience. I was very used to working and living in China, and I didn’t really want to go back to UK. I wished my internship was longer because I genuinely enjoyed working for SZOIL. I liked the studio in Apartment One and Chinese food. I resented my poor health and finances, as I didn’t get to explore Shenzhen or other places in China because of them, and I barely went out on social terms (just had dinner or tea, with another intern I befriended, now and then). I couldn’t even attend most CRCC organised activities, such as the weekly Chinese lessons, Kung Fu classes or the final formal dinner.
But, was the whole experience worth it? Yes. Could it have been better? Yes. Was I satisfied? Yes. At the end of the day, I had the wonderful chance to experience working and living in another country. I added another international experience to my list. I met people from all over the world. I grew at both personal and professional levels, developing a better idea of who I actually am and which are my career ambitions. And that’s what truly mattered.